Recently, a colleague wrote me with a concern from one of her clients. Here’s what she said:
He seems happy but commented that I use a lot of one-sentence paragraphs. I never noticed this, but it’s probably a holdover from reporting work. Is there a rule against this? He wasn’t really complaining but sort of musing about it because he says writing workshops claim this is a no-no.
My response? One sentence paragraphs are perfectly fine — as long as they are used smartly and judiciously. Moreover, there’s no rule against them, despite what high school English teachers or “workshop leaders” might tell you — and what you might find in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Here’s what Strunk says:
As a rule, single sentences should not be written or printed as paragraphs. An exception may be made of sentences of transition …
Nonsense. Let’s look at some other sources.
William Safire supports one-sentence paragraphs. Carol Fisher Saller, in her Chicago Q&A, states that “single-sentence paragraphs can add punch and variety to the writing, and should not be outlawed.” Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) writes that “a short, one-line paragraph will instantly grab your reader’s attention.” And AP’s Ask the Editor states that “there is no rule on the length of a paragraph,” noting that “one-word paragraphs often are used in dialogue.”
In addition, Bryan Garner writes in his Modern American Usage that “long sentences slow the reading and create a solemn, portentous impression; short sentences speed the reading and the thought.” Couldn’t the same be said of long and short paragraphs?
I advised my friend to tell her client — if she had to give him an explanation — that in this age of short attention spans, short paragraphs are often preferred to long paragraphs, and one-sentence paragraphs are perfectly acceptable. Short paragraphs help readers access your copy easily and digest it in manageable chunks. They also help draw attention to important points that are significant enough to stand alone — a critical factor to consider knowing that many readers are actually “scanners.”
Of course, it wouldn’t make sense to have every paragraph be one sentence long. Good writers vary the length of their paragraphs, much as they vary the length of their sentences — as part of the process of crafting clear, readable, resonant prose.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2007 and has been updated to reflect current sources.
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